The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. And committee meetings.

Liveblogging Public Safety’s review of the O’Connor and Iacobucci reports

So, how’s that balance between national security and civil liberty working out? Tune in later this morning to find out as the Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security gets started with its review of the findings and recommendations of the Iacobucci and O’Connor reports.

On the witness list for today: RCMP Public Complaints Commissioner Paul Kennedy and senior officials from the somewhat shadowy but determinedly non-sinister Security Intelligence Review Committee..

8:33:39 AM
Greetings from deepest darkest West Block, where detritus from last night’s afterhours revelry – the legendary All Party Party, hosted by NDP MP and all-round good time Peter Stoffer – still litters the halls. This morning, however, it’s back to business as usual – the most serious business for this particular committee, in fact.

Speaking of which, the witnesses are already starting to filter in with their respective retinues; the RCMP Public Complaints Commissioner, Paul Kennedy, is already at the table, and the nameplates are primed and ready for the other two invitees, Susan Pollak, Sylvie Roussel and Steve Bittle, the latter of which is, I believe, with SIRC, which is probably why he looked vaguely, reflexively uncomfortable as I was hovering over him, craning my neck to be sure of the spelling of his name. (Insert standard complaint about the lousy viewing angle we get at the media table, although at least we *have* a table today, so I’d best be grateful.)

Also, there are muffins! We never get those in Centre Block. Maybe it’s a turf thing.

8:52:24 AM
Oh, and just to give y’all a heads up, I may have to bail on the final round of questions, since I’ve got to head over to Centre Block for Government Ops at 11. Yes, I know — sometimes the most interesting stuff happens in the last two minutes, but it can’t be helped. We’ll just have to hope that they get all the important questions out of the way up front.

9:00:29 AM
“I see we finally have quorum,” grumbles the chair – an uncharacteristically passive aggressive Garry Breitkreuz – as he declares the meeting underway. It’s true – up until just a moment ago, there wasn’t a single opposition member present.

Anyway, Kennedy is first up with his opening statement, which notes that his office hasn’t dealt with all that many national security investigations – he can only think of three files – and he also lacks the power to review the programs and policies of the RCMP. Oh, downer: he also can’t give the committee any assurance that the RCMP has implemented the recommendations of the O’Connor report. That’s — disappointing. How are we supposed to find out? Ask the RCMP? Somehow, that doesn’t seem like the best way to ensure proper oversight.

9:07:33 AM
Aw, he has draft legislation to expand his powers and mandate – I love it when independent watchdog types get all creative – and he also points out that more *money* wouldn’t be unwelcome — in the written copy of his statement, which his office very helpfully handed out to reporters, there is a very pointed graphic that demonstrates the disparity between his budget and that of the RCMP.

That’s it for Kennedy; next up is SIRC’s Susan Pollak, who notes that the membership of the committee has changed substantially, so she’ll begin with a brief overview of SIRC.

9:14:00 AM
Pollak is still giving her overview – investigates complaints against CSIS, totally independent office, reports to Parliament, access to all information except cabinet confidences, you know the drill. They also carry out a “modest” communication program – fielding media inquiries, speaking at conferences and symposia – and they have a website. CSIS has accepted “the majority” of SIRC’s recommendations, and – oh, finally, she’s gotten around to the subject of today’s hearing: the recommendations of the O’Connor and Iacobucci reports. Yay!

SIRC is ready to assume an “expanded” role in investigating complaints, she says – provided it can obtain the necessary expertise. And money.

9:22:48 AM
Question time! First up, Mark Holland, who notes that Kennedy – and the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, for that matter – has been lobbying for an expanded role and legislative reform for years with no response from the government, even after then-Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day vowed to implement the recommendations of the O’Connor report. He asks Kennedy for more details on the “legislative deficiencies” that hobble him, and the commissioner doesn’t have to be asked twice: the frustration is evident in his voice as he describes the various loopholes and gaps in the current law that make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to do his job.

Holland wonders about the “workarounds” that the PCC employs to manoeuvre around the limits in the law; Kennedy points out that he can’t compel a witness to testify unless he holds a public interest inquiry, the going rate for which is approximately $20 million a pop, making it a wildly inefficient way to make someone talk.

9:31:57 AM
Brief intermission to fiddle with the simultaneous interpretation system, which seems to be experiencing serious technical difficulties of late, and then it’s Serge Menard’s turn to question the witness. He’s generally, wholly and specifically concerned by what the witnesses – especially Kennedy – have told him, particularly his inability to investigate most complaints related to national security. Also, CSIS was created in 1984? How – fitting. Then again, it’s not like we didn’t have an intelligence agency before that point. Still, gotta love a little bit of Orwell.
Okay, Menard is getting cranky at the longwindedness of the witness – Kennedy, that is – and assures him that he’s heard and understood his overall complaint, but he only has three minutes, so forgive him if he wants to get answers to specific questions, particularly related to investigations into the conduct of RCMP officers. Menard wonders if that would cover the Bloomdale case – allegations of sexual harassment against four Mounties – and Kennedy tells him that he’s conducting a “historic review” of similar complaints.

Menard looks spectacularly unimpressed, and moves onto Pollak and the no-fly list. Many complaints have been filed, he points out, by people who find themselves on the list due to name collision or for no stated reason at all – and there’s no way to have those names taken off the list, even when added “unjustly”. Is SIRC looking into this? Only if someone files a complaint, Pollak tells him. Oh, that’s not going to go over well at all. “We don’t have any power over Transport Canada,” she reminds him.

9:42:51 AM
The NDP’s Jack Harris wonders whether SIRC is similarly hamstrung as far as powers and mandate, and Pollak is far less Kevin Pagean than Kennedy — she tells him she has no specific concerns as far as SIRC’s ability to investigate complaints, which is “adequate” – but Harris points out that she simply can’t go beyond CSIS. Isn’t that a weakness? Not according to Pollak, but Harris looks about as reassured as Serge Menard with her response. He asks Kennedy whether he would be “satisfied” if his office had the same extent of powers as SIRC, and the commissioner points to the recommendations made in the O’Connor report, which pretty well sums up what he wants. Should he have subpoena powers beyond RCMP officers, Harris wonders. That’s part of it, yes – everyone in Canada should be subject to subpoena power, he says. I honestly didn’t realize that he *didn’t*. That seems like a horrendous oversight – no pun intended.

9:49:04 AM
Over to the government side, and Dave Mackenzie, who thanks the witnesses from “witnessing” to the committee. Is that supposed to be sarcasm? Anyway, he wonders how the SIRC oversight system compares to the rest of the world, and she natters on for a bit about “review” vs. “investigate”, and notes that there is “a plethora” of models out there – and the most popular is — drum roll — the parliamentary committee. Ooh, can we have one of those? Please? I promise I’ll feed it and walk it and liveblog it every day!

9:52:33 AM
In response to a very open-ended question from Mackenzie, Pollak lauds the relationship between SIRC and CSIS, which she describes as “non-adversarial”, although they don’t *always* agree. Uh, shouldn’t it be a little *more* adversarial? “We’re all human beings, and human beings make mistakes,” agrees Mackenzie. I wonder why he never says that when the subject is, say, youth crime. Also, is it wrong that I’m feeling a little unsettled by just how glowingly positive Pollak is about the agency her office is supposed to keep a retroactive eye on?

9:55:24 AM
Over to Rob Oliphant, who wonders whether the two agencies – SIRC and the RCMP PCC, that is – ever do joint investigations — they don’t — and wonders if there are any cases underway right now that SIRC fears it won’t be able to investigate fully because other agencies – Foreign Affairs, the RCMP, whatever – are involved. Pollak gives Roussel – SIRC legal counsel, if I remember right – the floor, and she gives the committee an — overview of the complaint process? How is that an answer?

10:01:26 AM
Brent Rathgeber is up for Team Government, and he confesses to “a bit of a disconnect” over Kennedy’s interpretation of the O’Connor recommendations. Does he want to go from review to oversight?

No, not really, Kennedy explains, giving a few examples of how he’d like to be able to perform an audit function – not complaint-driven, just go in and check to see if a particular program or policy is working properly. So like an RCMP Auditor General? That doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all, actually.

Rathgener notes that his role is to investigate “after the fact”, which Kennedy confirms, and wonders how the budget increase that Kennedy is angling for would prevent “an unfortunate incident” like the one that happened to Maher Arar. Kennedy points out that if his office had been able to look into RCMP policies, he could have uncovered potential problems in sharing databases with foreign governments. Point to Kennedy.

10:10:38 AM
Up now: the Bloc’s Maria Mourani, who has a long rambly preamble that leads to a pretty good question about whether CSIS has ever used evidence obtained under torture; Pollak waves away media reports alleging Canadian complicity, but agrees that there is a concern.

10:13:53 AM
Update! Update! Breaking news! According to Dave Mackenzie, Canada doesn’t *have* a no-fly list — we have a Passenger Protect list instead, so put all those silly concerns about unjustified additions out of your head. Anyway, Pollak is trying her best to give Mackenzie – who, it bears noting, is the parliamentary secretary for Public Safety – the answer he’s looking for – which is that Everything Is Fine and There’s Nothing To Worry About, in case it was too subtle for you.

10:17:41 AM
Okay, this is interesting: Mackenzie is now trying to play the witnesses against each other; he thinks if *any* agency is going to be expanded, it should be SIRC, not the PCC, and he invites Pollak to agree with him, which she won’t quite do, probably because she’s confused by his convoluted question. She agrees that there is no oversight agency anywhere on the planet that has the powers and mandate envisioned by O’Connor’s report.

10:19:33 AM
Mark Holland gets a second crack at questioning the witnesses, and notes that we’re getting an idea why O’Connor’s recommendations have been ignored, what with the parliamentary secretary musing aloud that he doesn’t see why any changes have to be made at all — this prompts an outraged denial from the aforementioned parliamentary secretary, who insists that wasn’t what he said. He also nails the government’s deliberately tangential lines of questioning on whether Canada has “the best” system internationally. By the time he’s done, Mackenzie is glaring across the table, but Kennedy is delighted to have the opportunity to give yet another example of how the O’Connor recommendations could make everything better. This one involves his investigation into Tasers,

Fun with wildly out of context comments: “I could have a thousand people Tasered and it wouldn’t make any difference.”

10:26:54 AM
Hey, remember last time ITQ covered Public Safety and Blake Richards accused the opposition of hating Mounties just because they asked questions? He’s doing it again. Is this a regular thing for him? Because – honestly, this is the public safety committee; if he’s uncomfortable with questions being asked about RCMP conduct and policies, he may want to think about switching to one with a mandate less potentially offensive to his delicate sensitivities.

10:31:30 AM
Andrew Kania offers Kennedy to respond to Richards’ suggestion that civilian oversight of the RCMP is “conducted by bureaucrats and paperpushers”, but the commissioner is, not surprisingly, more diplomatic in his reply; he points to the elimination of a backlog that had built up over the years. “These paperpushers are probably the most effective review body in the country,” he says. Ooh, your move, SIRC.

10:35:20 AM
Gosh, I’m almost sorry I have to slip out of here in a few minutes – I’m going to miss the grand finale. This meeting has been far more interesting than I was expecting, but Government Operations isn’t going to liveblog itself.

10:38:45 AM
Maria Mourani remains fixated on CSIS attitude towards torture; specifically the alleged nonchalence and possible use of evidence produced thereby, as well as the Khadr case – which, Pollak immediately points out, is actually the subject of a current investigation by SIRC. She does not, however, provide much reassurance that CSIS is not using torture-derived evidence — it’s a big scary world; CSIS is obliged to trade information with other countries, some of which are “nicer than others”, and — “I’m sort of speaking for the Service here,” she notes. Gee, you think? And did you mean just *now*?

10:44:51 AM
Jack Harris is the first to bring up the latest CSIS-related scandal in the news – the alleged involvement of the agency in a “rendition” to Sudan – and wonders whether this is something that SIRC should, you know, investigate. She reminds him that SIRC launched a review of the Maher Arar case long before the O’Connor commission got underway, and is in the midst of a similar review of the Khadr case.

Okay, I’ve put this off as long as possible, but I’ve got to head out — I’m sorry, I know I’m leaving on a cliffhang-ish note, but – well, these things happen. See you in the next thread in – yikes, ten minutes or so.